"Beneath White Stars: Holocaust Profiles in Poetry", by Holly Mandelkern - Poetry Review

Not a big reader of poetry, mostly because I’m too literal to understand most of it, I picked up Beneath White Stars: Holocaust Profiles in Poetry with trepidation. Lucky for me, this book of poetry is unlike any I’ve ever read, in the best of ways.

 While the poems (as you can surmise from the book’s title) are harrowing and tragic, within them are tales of kindness, survival and redemption. Grouped together in sections somewhat like chapters, after each section, Mandelkern provides a historical back story for each poem. In her prologue, she encourages readers to read each poem, turn to the back story, and then perhaps contemplate the poem again. I did this and found the poems much more meaningful the second time around, especially for a left brained person such as I am.

Mandelkern’s poems touch on every part of the Holocaust, from the savagery of the atrocities committed by the Nazis to specifically named heroes who risked their own lives to save those of persecuted Jews. She writes of the exquisite care and lengths Jews took to document what was happening to them and to find ways to preserve those histories. She pens of the Kindertransport, rescue efforts made to get Jewish children to England out of harm’s way. And while she writes of the importance of theses escapes for the lives of the children, she captures the children’s fear and the utter heartbreak and selflessness of the parents who put their children on trains with mainly the clothes on their backs heading into the arms of strangers. She writes of a marriage consecrated out of necessity and performed in a wedding dress made out of parachutes which ultimately resulted in a seventy-year union full of love and gratitude.

 Despite all of these events happening decades ago, every time I flipped from a poem to the history portion and discovered that one of the subjects of the poem lived beyond the war, I silently cheered.

Mandelkern is Jewish and clearly has personal reasons for wanting to share her poetry, but her efforts go well beyond the personal. She is a prolific scholar of history and has traveled to many of the places and met many of the people of which she writes. She is a skilled poetess who turns page long stories into four and five stanza poems. She is judicious and economical in word choice but still brings forth all the emotion.

Just like the documentarians during the Holocaust, she, too, is a carrier of the torch for this history so devastatingly brutal but also such proof of the human instinct for survival. As we lose the last living souls that actually experienced this tortured time in our history, poets and historians like Mandelkern will carry the stories forward ensuring that, indeed, we never forget.

Published: 2017
Publisher: Almondseed Press 

Elizabeth’s rating:  4.5 stars

Murderous London in "Death in the Air", by Kate Winkler Dawson - Book Review

Death in the Air was an unexpected find at last year’s BookExpo that I finally got around to reading. The subtitle is what got me - “The True Story of a Serial Killer, the Great London Smog, and the Strangling of a City”. I wondered how author Kate Winkler Dawson would weave together these two stories of serial killer, John Reginald Christie and the four day smog that killed thousands. The story comes together in Parliament of all places - competing priorities and differing political agendas. Death in the Air is an interesting history lesson of murder that was never completely resolved.

It’s a 1952 London winter. Fog is a common occurrence in London, as we know. Post war England is financially struggling, they are in rebuilding mode, and industry is pumping out toxic fumes along with production. Coal is the primary source of energy, with two kinds in circulation - a “higher quality” and expensive black coal; and nutty slack, a cheaper, more toxic heat source that the working class use to fill their fireplaces. As a fog descends upon the city on December 4th, factories continue to operate and people go to work. During this time, it’s reported that you would hardly be able to see your hand in front of you, driving is impossible, criminals have their way, and the soot is everywhere, clinging to hair and clothing, being ingested into lungs. After five days of the smoke and fog thousands die from the poisonous gases. It’s not until a year later a report is released stating 4,000 people died due to the smog. And it’s some 50 years later, when the true, staggering number is released - over 12,000 people dead due to the smog.  

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The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea, by Jack E. Davis - Book Review

Phew. Four months after starting this deeply researched and richly written tome, I turned the last page. Ironically, I did so after having spent my first weekend in Cedar Key, Florida, an island which Pulitzer Prize winner Jack E. Davis uses as an example of a current success story of gulf coastal sustainability and reasonableness.

With tens of pages of citations, this book was not written quickly or haphazardly. Honestly, knowing the Gulf is a place near to Davis’ heart, a place he grew up on as a boy, it’s hard to believe he actually finished it.

The man-driven destruction of the Gulf, its coastline, its estuaries and the rivers which flow into it is legendary. And almost all of it is related to capitalism and industry or the direct result of greed. Dead zones, red tide, algae blooms….all man-made disasters.

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"Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine", by Gail Honeyman - Book Review

Oh Eleanor, you’re completely wonderful! You will go down on my list of favorite main characters.

Eleanor, a single thirty-year old living in Glasgow, has worked the same job since she was 21. She is a woman of routine. She goes to work, 9-5, five days a week and on Friday after work gets take home pizza and enough vodka to keep her not too drunk/not too sober to make it to Monday morning when she starts the whole process all over again.

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The Gentler Side of a King in "Sleeping Beauties", by Stephen and Owen King - Book Review

The King of Horror is getting sentimental in his old age. While he’s been pulling away from horror for quite some time and focusing more on thrillers with strong characters, Sleeping Beauties is almost quaint at times.

The gist of the story is that the women in Dooling, Somewhere Town America, start succumbing to some sort of hibernation when they fall asleep. As soon as they drift off, their bodies start building a cocoon around them which keeps them alive but comatose. As virtually every woman falls prey, the men are left to fend for themselves. And it’s not pretty.

Sleeping Beauties: A Novel
By Stephen King, Owen King

Meanwhile, the women are transported into another world where only women exist. They are in some version of Dooling but set well into the future in a sort of post-apocalyptic setting. There is no electricity or running water and they have to start from ground zero to set up a functioning civilization. Not surprisingly, they fare much better than the men back in Dooling, even though under much more difficult circumstances.

King, who wrote this book with son Owen, clearly thinks women are not only the fairer sex but the smarter and more cohesive. But he also acknowledges that, in the end, women and men need one another for a well-balanced society.

There are, of course, heroes and villains in this tale and they are of both gender. A number of the main characters are either locked up in a women’s prison - before they cocoon - or serve as prison employees. Some of the most nefarious of that group are the staff, not the prisoners.

This is a 700-page tome that could have been told in less pages but moves along at a reasonable pace. Not as titillating as the Mr. Mercedes series (which I previously reviewed), it is an interesting commentary on the human condition and relationships. Perhaps writing a book with one’s son brings out the soft touch in an author.

Don’t misunderstand me, there is still plenty of bloodshed and evil doing, but there just seems to be a gentler side to King’s storytelling these days.

Published: 2017
Publisher: Scribner

Elizabeth's rating: 3 stars

Techno Thriller: "The Last Hack", by Christopher Brookmyre - Book Review

A relatively new genre within thrillers is cybercrime. I recently reviewed David Ignatius’ Quantum Spy and have tackled another - Christopher Brookmyre’s The Last Hack.  While Ignatius’ work is decidedly unmemorable, Brookmyre’s novel may tempt me to read more of his Jack Parlabane series.

The Last Hack is a techno whodunit that teams unassuming 19-year Sam, whose mother is in prison and is caring for her special needs younger sister, with an experienced investigative journalist, Jack Parlabane. It’s light on a lot of technical details, which is good since it’s not incredibly realistic. Not a security expert myself, even I realize many of the tactics simply don’t jive, but it’s background noise. What is engaging are the characters, the suspense, and an unknown common enemy - all of which did make for a fun read.

Relayed from two perspectives of Sam and Jack, they first collide, then join to form a protective front. Sam is a “supervillain” in the underground hacking world. However, in the real world Sam is a fearful, easily intimidated teenage girl who has to drop out of university to get a job to support her little sister.  She’s an ace hacker in the dark web, breaking into corporate sites to expose the hypocrites and greedy. No one knows her true identity until one day she is found out and threatened to be exposed unless she fulfills a dangerous request. Because her little sister is all she has, she is forced to play this perilous game, but she enlists some help. 

Jack on the other hand has had a dodgy career. He’s known to successfully get to the bottom of the toughest stories, but gets himself and his publishers in trouble while doing so. After going off the grid for a while, he’s straightened himself out, some of the skepticism about him has died down, and he’s just started working with a hot new online journal. Just when he thought he was on the safe path, a previous underground source surfaces and traps him back into criminal behavior - he’s back to living on the edge.  This is where Jack and Sam intersect.

Sam’s primal need to care for her sister drives some bold moves, and Jack has desperate, conflicting desires to keep his name clean and chase the juicy story. Brookmyre does a great job of creating tension building up to the moment Jack and Sam feel they are ready to act on their plan, only to find it all falls apart. It is nail-biting and fun, and I stayed awake far later than was wise, but it was well worth the lost sleep.

Published:  2017
Publisher:  Atlantic Monthly Press

Vickie’s rating: 3 1/2 stars

A Qualified Win for "Unqualified", by Anna Faris - Book Review

I’ve always envisioned that Anna Faris– Anna pronounced like “Donna” not like “Manna” – was sweet and gracious. Her book confirms as much. She adores her still happily married parents and credits them with her success, stating repeatedly that their encouragement to pursue the acting gig was what kept her at it. What I didn’t expect was her edginess and guile which, honestly, just made her more likable. I felt like I was sharing a drink with her as she regaled me with stories.

Unqualified
By Anna Faris

Though her book name and mantra is that she’s unqualified to give advice, that is exactly what she does. While she doesn’t have letters behind her name, what she does have is compassion and strong feelings about important topics. But her soft side coexists comfortably with her feminist side. Not at all afraid to call men out on crappy behavior, she’s similarly happy to admit that she loved it when her then husband would send her a huge flower arrangement before every taping of her tv show, “Mom.”

She discusses a broad range of topics including the following: losing her virginity, how terrible she was at dating, managing Hollywood stardom, and how she’s not really a comedic actress. She also has lots to say about love: when it’s right, when it isn’t, whether you should move to be with a guy (who isn’t your husband), the “wedding hoopla”, how to deal with a breakup, and how to make your man into the person you want him to be (you gotta read it to realize she gives solid advice on this one and it’s not about control).

To further demonstrate her likability, she had her soon to be ex-husband, Chris Pratt, write the foreword to the book after they had agreed to divorce. Between that and her words of love to him in her acknowledgements, I finished the book in tears. How can two people who clearly have so much love and respect for one another not have lasted? Well, because they’re people and being famous doesn’t make them any more or less likely to stay together. But, they are clearly good people which makes this book by yet another actress worth a turn.

This is an easy, quick read from a vibrant, caring, and funny woman.

Published:  2017
Publisher:  Dutton

Elizabeth's rating: 3.5 stars

Spies Chasing Computing's Next Frontier in "The Quantum Spy", by David Ignatius - Book Review

David Ignatius is quite an accomplished journalist and novelist. He focuses on spy thrillers, of which I’ve read two now - The Director about a newly appointed CIA Director in a time of crisis; and his latest, The Quantum Spy, also about the CIA, this time focusing on a technology race between China and the United States.  Ignatius knows where to find his material - as a 30 year veteran of The Washington Post, he covers politics and is well respected in the community, providing him access to some credible advisors.

The Quantum Spy focuses on the Central Intelligence Agency’s Deputy Director John Vandel and agent Harrison Chang. They want to protect U.S. scientific development of one of the most important technology advances in history - quantum computing, which can process data millions of times more quickly than existing computing capabilities - and thwart efforts of the Chinese spy agencies to intercept any growth in the technology’s progress.  

Quantum computing and its development is real, so the subject is certainly intriguing. Ignatius just scratches the surface of what it is and what the potential could mean to both the private and public sectors, and that’s just enough for this novel. It’s a race for sure and its implications astounding.  Governments around the world are striving for the early advantage.

The Quantum Spy: A Thriller
By David Ignatius

Harrison Chang is chosen by Vandel for this particular mission for two reasons: Chang is a former Army Ranger who saved Vandel’s life in Iraq, and he’s American of Chinese descent. Chang is quite proud of his very American accomplishments - high school football star, West Point graduate, Army veteran, and now a CIA agent - it’s the American dream. And he seems to be quite good at working over his targets; getting them to cave under pressure and give up valuable information. In doing so, he uncovers a “rukou” - a Chinese doorway into the heart of U.S. intelligence. In other words, there is a mole feeding the Chinese with information about highly classified quantum computing programs that have gone “dark” and are operating under one of the U.S. three letter agencies.

Vandel assembles a small team working covertly even within the CIA. Their mission is to not only ferret out the mole, but to wreck havoc within the Chinese intelligence community. He sends Chang as his frontman to stir the pot - and it works.  Chang darts across the country from Langley to San Francisco, to Vancouver and Mexico City. Meanwhile, the Chinese Minister of State Security has his own problems - the Ministry is falling apart due to corruption, the People’s Liberation Army Generals have competing interests, and he has to protect his most important asset and trump card, the “rukou”.

It’s a fun ride and an easy read. Like many journalists turned novelist though, Ignatius writes like a reporter. Clearly successful, it works for him. It’s a great subject though written for someone looking for lightweight fiction. My biggest issue was once again his treatment of a leading female character. Denise Ford is portrayed as a smart, smooth, and clever operative, though she makes some ridiculous mistakes. Ignatius did this in The Director as well. I just can’t reconcile the set up of these characters as strong and dominating, yet actions and dialogue so foolish. To be fair, the dialogue overall was not too imaginative.

If you like quick spy stories, this is a good one. Look elsewhere for literary mastery.

Published: 2017
Publisher: W. W. Norton

Vickie’s rating: 3 stars

The Travails of Friendship in "The Animators", by Kayla Rae Whitaker - Book Review

Short haired, loud mouthed lesbian Mel Vaught; weight conscious, big chested, introverted Sharon Kisses. Tentative friends early on in college, fierce duo upon graduation and after. Teaming up as animators, they turn what they love to do into full-time work. As their first major endeavor, they make a full-length feature animated film about Mel’s life to much acclaim. That acclaim sets them off and running both professionally and in their personal lives, sometimes in parallel lines; sometimes in almost opposite directions.

Major life events happen to these women in the pages of this story and, with each one, you think it’s the climax. It’s not. But this isn’t a criticism, more of a warning. This book is chock full of exhilarating highs, bone crushing lows, and sizzling emotion from deeply developed characters. The underpinning of the entire tale hinges on the personalities and evolution of characters Mel and Sharon, and Whitaker's masterful use of dialogue in such a unique style throughout the book aids in its character development.

The Animators: A Novel
By Kayla Rae Whitaker

Sharon is the hero on the journey here, and she’s forced to learn much about herself, her relationship with Mel, and how to be her own person. This book dives into friendships as life changing relationships. Ones that can be as significant, if not more, than spousal or familial ties and how they can be just as impactful and destructive if left unchecked.   

Whitaker writes in great detail about the art and business of animation, a topic about which I previously knew nothing. If Whitaker isn’t professionally trained as an animator, she’s certainly done her research. The book is an interesting and insightful look into a very nuanced world and, for me, a true education into new material.

In the first few pages of the book, I was hooked. On Mel and Sharon as people, on their travails together and apart, on their work life, on their stories, real and imagined. Gripping and vivid, The Animators struck major chords.  

Published: 2017
Publisher: Random House

Elizabeth's rating: 4 stars

Extraordinary and Wholly Entertaining: "Five-Carat Soul", by James McBride - Book Review

Somehow I passed over the hype around James McBride and his highly acclaimed The Good Lord Bird. I’m now completely on board the McBride train.  Five-Carat Soul is one of the most unique and charming books I’ve read. I can’t think of a similar style, and I loved it.

Five Carat-Soul is a compilation of stories, several tied together, all told with a strong depth of character and imagination. McBride’s stories are fun, and his characters are both strong and vulnerable in navigating their curious situations. In one series, we are introduced most delightfully to the kids that make up The Five-Carat Soul Bottom Bone band of Uniontown, Pennsylvania. Without affection, they refer to their town as The Bottom, and in The Bottom we get to know Ray-Ray, Goat, Sissie, Blub, and an ensemble of characters with yarns as told from one of their own. It’s a tough town with small kindnesses its greatest currency.

Five-Carat Soul
By James McBride

Abe Lincoln makes a couple of appearances; first as a young orphaned slave’s imagined father, then later as we witness the president in a quite intimate, vulnerable, and deeply human circumstance. “The Christmas Dance" is incredibly authentic and moving - it will make your heart swell. And my favorite collection of related stories just has to be "Mr. P and the Wind”. Here we better understand the Higher Order - the wild animals, here confined to a life in captivity, as related by the king of the jungle himself.  You’ll learn in the author’s note that McBride created these last stories after a disturbing visit to the zoo with his two nephews - what a creative and compelling way to turn something so appalling to them into something so magical. 

McBride is an incredible storyteller - completely unpredictable and original. McBride cleverly and sharply confronts our callousness; and he recognizes our flaws and dreams alike with wisdom and care. His attention, depth, and wit make this a fantastic read.

Published:    2017
Publisher:    Riverhead

Vickie’s rating:     5 stars